“Writing is a blank piece of paper and leaving out what isn’t supposed to be there.”
After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent
by William Stafford
Whispering to each handhold, “I’ll be back,”
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind—
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward. . . .
I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark—
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
—the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
“Made it again! Made it again!
It has been heartwarming for me to see the remembrances posted on-line in the wake of John Prine’s passing, the admiration for his song writing and humanity pouring out from so many. I have been a John Prine fan for over 40 years, buying my first John Prine album in 1978. I have purchased I think almost every album and CD Prine ever released, even a couple of the mediocre ones mid career because there was always at least one great song. And there are more than one that I have bought several times because I wore the original copy out playing it so frequently.
“I edit as I go. Especially when I go to commit it to paper. I prefer a typewriter even to a computer. I don’t like it. There’s no noise on the computer. I like a typewriter because I am such a slow typist. I edit as I am committing it to paper. I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before and they fit. I don’t usually take large parts out. If I get stuck early in a song, I take it as a sign that I might be writing the chorus and don’t know it. Sometimes, you gotta step back a little bit and take a look at what you’re doing.”
Part of living the journey alongside Prine over the last 42 years was watching how he responded to everything that life can throw at you, from career ups and downs, to true love, to divorce and heartbreak, back to true love and happiness, to substance abuse, to depression to disease and disfigurement, to recovery and hope and success and fulfillment. One of the many defining moment in Prine’s life is when his good friend and early touring partner, Steve Goodman passed from leukemia at the age of 36, just as their careers were taking off. Prine and Goodman each mastered their craft in Chicago’s small stages and bars in the late 1960’s. Goodman’s harmony on vocals and guitar playing on the original recording of Paradise on Prine’s debut album in 1971 is what makes that song stand out.
“The best way to write a song is to think of something else and then the song kind of creeps in. The beginning makes no sense whatsoever. it just, like rhymes. And then all of a sudden I’ll go into, I am an old woman named after my mother.”
John Prine commenting on how the iconic line in Angel From Montgomery came about
A sign of a great song writer is when the version’s of the song that they wrote that you remember best were recorded by someone else. It means other great song writers and singers were so moved by that song that they made it there own. One of the reasons that I have loved Prine all these years, beyond his deft lyrics, simple yet complex guitar playing and always good humor, is that Prine and I share the same vocal range, which is about 6 good notes. There is not a single Prine song I can’t sing along. In poking around one morning this week I found on YouTube a link where someone had assembled every song John Prine wrote and recorded in a one stop shop of good humor. It’s staggering to see the list of how many great songs this man has written.
I often feel the same way about poets I enjoy. Poet’s who speak in a language that just makes sense to me, like John Prine songs. One of those poet’s is William Stafford. Stafford writes with a range of emotions and connections to nature and humanity that are right on key with my heart. Stafford and Prine share some common sensibilities in their kind pacifism and their ability to reflect back upon ourselves a mirror of how good this lonely business of living can be. Prine and Stafford both mix humor and suffering in darn near equal proportions, served with a touch of ironic bitters, for the perfect cocktail of genuine American art.
If it’s been a long time since you took Prine seriously, check out the final 4 CDs of his career after beating his first round of throat cancer. His songs and ability to regain his voice after multiple health setbacks, along with the litany of amazing musicians who partnered with him to make those albums are well worth a listen.
Lines To Stop Talking By
by William Stafford
In your city today outside my room
some quiet animal or only the rain
at its patient task was opening the wall
by touching it, and whatever was there
spread outward a bit at a time toward the horizon
cresting ahead and breaking, the way
all through your life whatever is near extends
when you think. In your city today
I thought of Never, hiding inside
an iceberg floating south rinsed by the days
till that great blind ice blinks open in the center.
I heard an ambulance carry its banner away
in the rain in your city. And I though of
my poems – how they are always there
waiting to try for that circumference
it takes all of us to find. . . .